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the small stuff

How the recreational user becomes the small-time dealer in the eyes of the law

Gardaí say young people who have never been in trouble with the law find it hard to understand that a normal part of their social lives is actually a serious criminal offence.

This week, is taking a closer look at Ireland’s relationship with illegal substances. More people in Ireland are using drugs than ever before. We’ll look at why that is… and the possible consequences.

LAST YEAR GARDAÍ recorded more than 12,000 incidents of possession of drugs for personal use and a further 4,000 ‘sale or supply’ offences. 

Many people caught in possession of illegal substances consider themselves ‘recreational’ drug users – ‘a few lines in the toilets on a night out’ or ‘the odd pill, but only at music festivals’. It can come as a shock to them, then, when this ‘recreational’ use lands them in trouble with the law.

The government is considering decriminalisation of drugs for personal use, but currently it is a criminal offence to possess even a small amount of an illicit substance. 

One garda explained to that young people at music festivals or clubs get a rude awakening when they are caught doing something that has become a normal part of their social lives. 

“The most they would be found with would be for personal use  – maybe one or two [ecstasy] tablets or one small bag of coke. They’d be brought back for a search, with consent, and if nothing more is found they would be released, with a summons to follow once the drugs are analysed.”

Possession of any controlled substance is an offence and penalty for personal use is usually a fine, particularly if the substance is cannabis and it is a first or second offence.

Most offenders in these circumstances can avoid a criminal record, but this recreational use can have more serious consequences for a person if they stray into ‘sale or supply’. 

Shutterstock / serpeblu Shutterstock / serpeblu / serpeblu

“More often than not it’s the person who bought for the group of mates who is caught, not the actual dealer. They’ve all put their money together and technically one supplies all the mates and he is caught. If he has never been in trouble before, he can’t understand the supply aspect of the arrest,” they explained. 

It’s so easy for a lad to buy too much coke or 100 pills at the discount rate and then make double his money or more on what he bought. Small-time dealers would get the brunt of the charges, it’s always the way. They are never, or rarely, willing to give up who they sell for.

“It’s a tough situation for some guards making the arrests and recommending charges because we know it’s only for their friends.”

A public health concern

Detective Sergeant Brian Roberts from the Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau echoes this sentiment. 

“Many young people are unaware when they buy drugs for themselves and their friends that this is a much more serious offence under the current legislation in this country than they might realise,” he told 

A conviction for sale and supply, depending on the substance and the amount – and the judge – can result in a prison sentence. But Roberts said this should not be the main concern for young people who consider themselves recreational drug users. 

“Yes it is illegal and a person can find themselves in court for possessing drugs but this consideration should be secondary to the risk to their own personal health and well being,” he said.

ELECTRIC PICNIC DAY 2 140_90522122 Gardaí have conducted operations at music festivals in recent years and have seized small quantities of drugs from young people. Sam Boal Sam Boal

“There is one common theme which should be a priority to us as a society and that is when drug use becomes a public health concern for individuals or communities’ then helpful intervention is crucial.

Why we police the availability of controlled drugs is principally because it is a public health concern. Of course An Garda Síochána has a responsibility and a focus on tackling criminal groups involved in the trafficking and sale of drugs, but ultimately our efforts must remain relentless because of the fact that, on average, almost every day a person dies from drug poisoning in this country.

The most commonly used illicit substances in Ireland are cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine. And despite specific legislation to try to curb the use of new psychoactive substances, they remain prevalent – 3% of the population over the age of 15 have used one. 

With 700 new psychoactive substances in the European market now, Detective Sergeant Roberts said the effects of these drugs can be “devastating”. 

“Now when a young person in Ireland smokes a new synthetic cannabinoid, they refer to it as ‘Spice’ or ‘Bonzai’, which is the street term they know this so-called new form of cannabis by.

The fact is that these slang names mean nothing as it is not cannabis as we have ever known it.

He said these drugs could be “any one of 180 new chemical compounds that are psychoactive” and there is little research about their short- or long-term effects. 

“Today when somebody consumes a powder or a pill that they genuinely don’t know what’s in it. Fifteen years ago when a person bought a white powder they could assume it to be amphetamine or cocaine.

“Similarly when someone sourced ecstasy back then it would most usually contain MDMA. This is no longer the case. Recent research in Wales shows that 49% of a large sample set of ecstasy tablets analysed did not contain MDMA as they would be expected to.”

‘Enough to kill a person’

Roberts said the smallest amount is “enough to kill a person” and there is a significant risk if people are taking a pill or powder without knowing what is in it. 

Gardaí have seen stimulant white powders sold as cocaine, or mixed into it, and have also found the “extremely dangerous” synthetic opiate fentanyl in heroin. The average strength of an ecstasy in Ireland is 120mg but Roberts said it can vary from 50mg to 300mg, which can be a dangerous dose. 

New legislation to decriminalise drugs for personal use is expected early next year after a working group appointed by Minister of State for the National Drugs Strategy Catherine Byrne makes its recommendations. 

And while Detective Sergeant Roberts said gardaí will continue their work targeting the often violent gangs controlling the illegal drug enterprise, there is a recognition that “you cannot just police a drug problem away”. 

“Illegal drugs will continue to be policed at every level in our society but the message from authorities today must have a modern focus and that is to educate young people. These dangers are new. And they are real.”

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